As spectral trees and wisps of snow soared past her hovercycle in the midnight air, Anna Feuchtwanger couldn’t shake the sensation that—despite her best efforts—she had been followed.
The visual sensor in her helmet beeped upon her arrival to her designation, and she sidled the hovercycle beside the rusty gate. The engine’s rumble died, and the silhouettes of trees ringed her in from all sides. The sliver of crescent moon slid beneath a blanket of storm clouds. Perhaps it was the unnatural red fog that trailed her the entire way to the dropsite that set her on edge. The vapor had unnerved her with each passing kilometer.
Anna frowned. She should have outdistanced the haze hours ago. Instead, the fog had kept pace and oozed around the trees like blood from a blaster wound.
Overly conscious of the blaring silence, Anna scoured the darkness. If she’d been tailed, she was already dead. Tension coursed her every move.
She tried to take comfort from the dark. The lack of flickering light between the trees meant no pursuit. But no owls hooted through the trees out of the fog’s reach either, and no creatures scurried in the underbrush. The forest stood eerily still, and her boots crunched too loudly in the fresh snow.
The only sound for miles.
She peeled back her helmet. Several hours’ worth of sweat had congealed on her cheeks and forehead under the heavy gas mask. She disconnected the larger attachment of the respirator that covered the entirety of her face. Mindful of the fog, she left the nasal section of the mask inserted in her nostrils, secure in its band around the middle of her face. She leaned back and basked in the cool sensation of fresh air, trying to shrug her nerves off. This rendezvous was too important to abort.
Six months ago when the soldiers came, it had been difficult to leave Dębica. Since then, security teemed on high alert, and the Resistance warned she might not escape the new ghetto. The stolen red scarf and cap that identified her as a magisterial courier had been her ticket out. With the goods stashed beside the cans of fuel in her hovercycle’s sidecar, and her disguise in place, the guards waved her through when she exited the city.
However, the real danger had been in the woods. There, Fuhrer Strumpf’s Wölfe lurked amongst the trees, hunting for escapees. The first six hours into her journey had been uneventful, until she stumbled upon a pack of them, hiding, just around the curve of the road.
In their black uniforms and fur-lined hats, they snapped at the sight of her. Their Gatling rays pointed at her heart.
“Dienstliche Angelegenheiten,” she called out. Official affairs.
Recognition dawned at her cap and greeting, their weapons lowered, and the commanding officer dismissed her with a wave. She was suddenly grateful for her large frame and androgynous features. They had never served her so well.
That had been four hours ago.
From behind her, a thunderous crack reverberated throughout the forest.
Her particle blaster flew to her hand as she dropped behind the cycle. She cursed. Her pulse sped. Had she been careless?
Had they spotted her feminine features and followed her after all? Did they let her go only to arrest them all at the delivery? Impossible to tell with that damned fog!
The tangible presence of the package radiated through the metal sidecar, so crucial for the fate of her people, so terribly exposed. Any shape could materialize from the inky night and strip it from her. The instinct her hard to raise the rusty latch and clutch the precious thing to her chest. But if the Wölfe had followed, the slightest movement would tip off her location and destroy everything.
Silent, she crouched like a cat in the snow. Waiting. Five minutes. Ten.
Straightening, her eyes combed the dark.
“A broken branch.” She decided. “From the weight of the snow.”
The gate’s intercom box beside the hovercycle was soot-stained and beaten out of shape.
A shape glinted dully above the button and speaker. With gloved fingertips Anna rubbed at the gritty insignia, a fattened caterpillar crushed in a whimbrel’s beak. She fought against the sudden rush of shivers down her spine.
Damn nerves left her on edge. She was fine. Everything was fine.
She leaned an elbow against the button and gave her password. “Oma, bist du da? Ich bin's. Rot. Lass' mich rein.” Grandma, are you there? It’s me. Red. Let me in.
A buzz crackled through the speakers. The gates opened with a rusty shriek.
The battered haus was a short drive down the lane. Dark overgrown shrubs once neatly maintained lined the path and now grew with abandon. Once, the structure had been impressive, maybe even opulent. Now, weathered boards covered every window, and snowy machinery littered the front lawn beneath the snow. Another encrusted insignia greeted her at the scorched door, but it swung wide at her touch. Inside, a fire danced in the smoky hearth in the first open room. It sat empty except for the settee in front of the fireplace.
And a familiar travel pack. Heinrich’s.
Anna relaxed, unzipped her bomber jacket, and warmed her hands over the flames. A different sort of warmth spread up her fingertips into her chest that had nothing to do with the fire and everything to do with the pack’s owner. He, too, had made it out safe.
That’s what mattered.
When strong arms snaked around her from behind, she melted into them. Smiling, she leaned into the expected embrace. He said nothing, but she didn’t mind. He had never been much of a talker. Now in his arms, she was safe. The Resistance was safe. With the package, the bio-war would end, and once again Polish soldiers would have the tools they needed to turn the tide. It was over.
Anna sighed after a moment of contentment and patted her lover’s hands on her waist. “My,” she said, teasing. “Granny, what big hands you have.”
Firelight glinted off the ring on his hand. Brushed steel. A wolf’s skull. Heinrich didn’t own jewelery. An unexpected bass rumbled through her. “The better to eat you with, my dear.”
The arms tightened around her and forced the air out of her. Cold metal scraped the skin around one wrist and then the other as both limbs were jerked behind her back.
Then she was on the floor, confused. How did she get there? Her face stung. She’d been hit, but she missed when—it had been so fast.
Wolf pelts covered the helmets of the secret police. They ringed her in and jammed their Gatling rays at her face.
“No,” she said. Her pleading was a soft caress, too soft for her captors to hear. “No, no, no, no.”
Beyond the guns surrounding her, Heinrich loomed a head taller above them all, a wolf pelt of his own slung back from his head.
The incongruous image of the fur paired with his face baffled her. It didn’t make sense. Was she dreaming? She had to be. Nightmares like this didn’t come true.
This wasn’t real.
Heinrich barked out more orders in German to the rest of the squad, directing the men to pat her down, to check her bag, and maybe inspect her hovercycle for sign of the package.
But for Heinrich to betray her—and the Resistance—it was impossible. Unbidden memories warred against understanding. All she could think was of the last time they laid entwined in each other’s arms and soaked up all the heat they could from the dying coals of a Resistance hearth.
“After the war,” he’d said into her hair, “I’ll make shoes again. Just like my father. No one made hoverboots like he did. We’ll open a shop and live above it.”
She’d chuckled and tucked herself closer under his arm. “After the war,” she whispered. “I’ll be a doctor to all your customers who fling themselves into traffic when they can’t handle your shoddy anti-grav settings.” She side-eyed him. “I’ve seen people on your boots before.”
“Hey!” He swatted her. And they’d laughed and tussled and made love again.
The memory faded as the icy cuffs bit deeper into her wrists. Something hurt. Anna stared at the ground, dazed. The stained, cracked floorboard revealed nothing but scorch marks and rat droppings between the slats.
Where’s the blood? There had to be blood for her chest to hurt this much. Her pulse hammered in her ears and with each beat, it squeezed out more from her and left her colder with each breath.
Her mind spun through a hundred conversations with Heinrich. His explanation when the Resistance picked him up in the woods. His reasoning for joining. The complications that arose whenever he was on mission. The first time he kissed her.
She interrupted him in mid-order. “The whole time? You were theirs the whole time?” Her throat burned as if she’d vomited up shattered glass. Every slice, every score, every cut from it scorched from its path from stomach to mouth and left her raw. Broken. “There was no Australian munitions expert interested in a deal, was there? You... You set us up.”
Heinrich shared a knowing glance with one of his men and half-shrugged. “Don’t take it so personally, Feuchtwanger. If it wasn’t you, it was going to be another Resistance whore who spread her legs at the first drop of my trousers. You happened to be the front of the line, that’s all—”
“Gefreiter, I’ve found it! It is here.” A younger soldier pushed his way to Heinrich. He’d tucked the basket under his arm, along with all her hopes for a free Poland.
She swallowed hard against the bile that rose sharply in her throat. Everything was lost. Her eyes stung.
Heinrich plucked the package out of the wicker basket and tore off the swath of red cloth, revealing a chrome container lined in blinking lights. He twisted the cylinder around and examined it. “What is this?” His gaze flicked to her.
She clenched her teeth and glared back at him.
Heinrich leaned in closer and held the device aloft. His voice rose half an octave. “What is this? This wasn’t part of the original details of the mission.”
Anna said nothing.
A soldier at his side slapped her hard across the face. “Answer when the Gefreiter is speaking to you!”
Heinrich stopped him with a gesture, and his eyes locked with Anna’s. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”
Part of her folded under that look. What point was there in silence now? Silence would not help her. It would only help her die sooner.
“The containment shield was a last-minute precaution. High command suspected a mole in our company. Too many missions had gone wrong, but they never once suspected your loyalty.” How she loathed him. “They should have. I should have.”
Without warning, Heinrich struck. Her head flew back and she tasted copper. There. There it was. She’d found the blood.
“How do I deactivate the shield?” he said. He reinspected the cylinder, but it lacked any obvious buttons or key holes to help him.
Heinrich sighed and rubbed his bare face. “I do not have time for such foolishness.” He spun on his heel and flopped onto the ancient settee. A cloud of dust rose from the seat and his Wölfe coughed. “You, Lehmann. Take a finger. I don’t care which. Just get her talking.”
The smallest of the soldiers turned to her. He smiled as he produced a long blade from his belt. He leaned in close enough for her to see the crust of plaque between his stubby teeth.
“My, my. You really ought to give the Gefreiter what he wants. He is not a patient man. Now which should we choose?” A cold metal tip bit into the pads of several of her fingertips on her left hand. Under his breath, he sang the nursery rhyme. “Peter hat ins bett geschissen, Gerade aufs Paradekissen. Mutter hat’s gesehen... "
The blade settled firmly above the knuckle over little finger of her left hand. She took a sharp breath. “Wait, no!”
“und Du musst gehen!”
She shrieked. Pain exploded from her palm up her arm, caustic, fiery, searing every nerve in its wake. Hot liquid scalded the remaining fingers on her bound hands. She screamed again, as fast as she could draw air.
She only stopped when Heinrich’s grip across her throat silenced her.
“That was a warning. For testing me,” he said softly. “I don’t care if we have to take every finger you have, and every toe once you run out of those. But you will tell me how to open that containment field. Do I make myself clear?”
Tears scalded her cheeks. “Y-yes.” Her voice was a croak.
“Good.” He released her, and she gasped down air. “Now, let’s try this again. How do I open the field?”
Heinrich exhaled a breath sharply through his nose. “I see. You want to play games. Lehmann, take ano--”
“Wait! Stop! I’m trying to cooperate!” She squeezed her eyes shut. “You can’t open the field, but I can. Only if you stopping cutting now, though. If you take more fingers, it’ll be your own fault that you fail.”
She opened her eyes in time to see Heinrich’s gesture at Lehmann to stand down. “Explain,” he said.
“The container was our insurance. It will only open when supplied with the proper voice activation code and fingerprint scans of all fingers on my right hand. The scan also verifies a specific structure in my DNA and ensures that it’s living tissue.” This last she invented. She didn’t want to risk losing more fingers today.
Heinrich spun the package around in his hands. “I don’t see any scanning panels.”
She hated herself to reveal even this much of their technology to the enemy. “You have to shake it. Firmly. Three times for the panel to surface.”
After the third shake, the glossy exterior of the container’s shell slid away, revealing a silver unmarked panel.
Anna strained against the cuffs behind her. “I can’t—I can’t open it this way. My fingers are too slick. Too dirty. It will negate the scan.”
Heinrich nodded. “Clean her up. And bind that hand.”
His Wölfe followed orders. The cuffs vanished from her wrists. When she brought her hands in front her, she couldn’t look at the left for long. Too much red covered them both, and from a glance she saw that the cut—it wasn’t clean.
The soldier before her produced a medical kit, and in quick succession he skillfully washed, disinfected, and bandaged the damaged appendage. She focused on him instead of the nausea roiling in her gut. Before long, her hand was wrapped and fingers cleaned. She tested the dressing and sighed when she found it neatly done. She only shook the slightest bit.
Heinrich assessed her. His eyes narrowed ever so slightly. He was on to her. “You know, I never expected you to fold so quickly in interrogation.”
She looked away and her cheeks heated. “I suppose neither of us really ever knew the other then, did we? I know what’s in my best interest.”
He handed her the container, and she grasped it gingerly with her wounded hand. Pain shot from stump to elbow from the weight of it. Wincing, Anna angled her fingertips on her right until her nails awkwardly lined up in the small space. She pressed them gently against the scanner. A heartbeat later, an internal hinge squeaked, and a red button surfaced on one end.
“Stop,” Heinrich barked. “What’s that?”
“It’s what I press before giving the vocal password.”
“Then do it. Now.”
Anna hesitated. She never wanted this to happen, but it was too late. There was no going back. Her thumb covered the button, and she brought it closer to her mouth. Finally, she pressed down and spoke. “As long as I live, I will never by myself leave the path.”
Then she tossed the cylinder up into the air. An ear-popping pressure burst, and a colorful plume gushed out before it hit the ground, sparking. Within seconds, smoke blanketed the room.
She had told them about the scanner and the voice activated password, but she hadn’t mentioned the gas. A concentrated dose of isoflurane large enough to bring down a herd was the third tier of protection. It was designed to knock out everyone not wearing a mask in a thirty-meter radius.
A mask like Anna had strapped into her nose. She closed her mouth, covered her eyes to protect them from the potent chemicals clouding the air, and breathed nasally.
After a few heartbeats of initial confusion, one by one the Wölfe dropped. Their striking thuds traveled through the floorboards and vibrated through Anna’s bones. Heinrich fell last, cursing. Anna remained on the floor, hands over her eyes. She waited. Eventually the container beeped, the signal that the gas had successfully cleared the air for safe breathing again. She rose.
The scattered forms of twelve sleeping Wölfe sprawled throughout the room. She didn’t have much time. Within half an hour, the cleared air would revive them, and she would not survive their anger.
With her uninjured hand, she rolled the nearest body onto its side. When she found the knife, she commenced slitting throats. She gave Lehmann the honor of being first.
The knife glistened darkly when she approached Heinrich last. For the longest time, she drank in the sight of him. His handsome face softened by unconsciousness, framed by his treacherous pelt. This was how she wanted to remember him. Not the giver of soft caresses. Not the source of warmth and comfort that he’d been on so many nights. Not the father of the child that he would never know because she had planned to tell him after the mission.
She burned the image of him into her memory as the traitor that he was. A mole in Wölfe clothing. She would not be duped by such a man again. As his eyelids began to flutter, she promised. “Never again.”
Anna buried the knife deep and ripped him open from clavicle to pelvis. She wiped the blade clean on his uniform and sheathed it. His cries trailed her as she left the haus.
The blackened façade of the building stared back at her once she had safely stowed the opened cylinder, a snow-packed pinkie, and twelve enemy wolf pelts into the sidecar of her hovercycle. She fleetingly considered setting it all aflame, but abandoned the idea. A fire demanded too much attention. Stealth had always suited her purposes better.
Instead, Anna kicked her hovercycle into life and tore into the night.